TELEVISION CABLE, the high-speed Internet link of the 90s, faces a seemingly unlikely rival -- plain old telephone wire.
Old as the pyramids by technology standards, copper phone wire is carrying high-speed data via Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology.
The service is starting to cross the "last mile" to homes in Western New York with speeds many times faster than standard dial-up modems, giving Adelphia Communications Corp.'s PowerLink Internet service a run for the money.
Both DSL and cable provide lightning-fast Web access via "always on" connections, without tieing up the phone line. Proponents say the technologies will eliminate the last-mile bottleneck between homes and the nation's communications pipelines, spawning a host of new applications like movie downloads and video conferencing.
"I think rather than calling their grandchildren on the phone, people will get them video equipment and see them on the Internet," said Kirk Miller, president of Prime Communications. The Amherst on-ramp company began offering DSL access this month in Erie and Niagara counties, with help from independent phone company ChoiceOne Communications.
But the new services still have some technological wrinkles, and at prices of about $50 a month plus equipment, they may be out of reach for many.
"It (DSL) will probably get below $50, but it's hard to make a profit at that level," said Mark Lutkowitz, president of telecommunications consultant Trans-Formation Inc.
The Digital Subscriber Line generally costs more than cable Internet and faces transmission limits, meaning it won't be available in every home that has a phone. But proponents say equipment prices will come down, and other advantages will make it a potent competitor.
"The demand is huge -- we've been overwhelmed by customers asking if they can get it," Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Joan Rasmussen said. The phone company is testing DSL service in Buffalo in preparation for launch early next year.
A third choice -- wireless high-speed access -- will be coming for home users toward the end of 2000, according to fixed-wireless company Clearwire Inc. based in Dallas.
Since he souped up his Internet access with DSL, Josh Kovacich has used his computer to video-conference with his uncle in Canada. He's used it surf the Web at speeds that most home users can't touch.
"Web pages load up instantly," the college student from Niagara County said.
But his killer application is playing the interactive shoot-'em-up game Quake against cyber-rivals on the Internet. No more jerky movement and molasses-like trigger response. With DSL speed, Kovacich can get the drop on low-tech opponents around the country.
"It's a real advantage," he said.
Here's the state of high-speed or "broadband" Internet access for homes in the Buffalo area:
Cable modems. Long available in Amherst, two-way cable Internet from Adelphia recently began appearing in other Buffalo suburbs, with the city to go online by year-end. The cost is $40 a month plus the cable bill, while installation costs of $50 to $75 are often canceled by promotional offers. Adelphia has 3,200 PowerLink subscribers in its Buffalo service area. It says the maximum download speed is 1 million bits per second, but users say average speeds are about a quarter of that.
Digital Subscriber Line or DSL. Bell Atlantic's rollout of "Infospeed DSL" is set for early next year, while smaller competitors are already connecting some households. Prime Communications offers DSL at 384,000 bits per second (384kbps) for $70 a month, plus a set-up charge of $150. In addition, a DSL modem purchased separately can cost in the neighborhood of $300. Bell Atlantic plans to charge $50 a month for speeds up to 640 kbps, plus $99 for installation and equipment.
Wireless data. Pizza-sized dishes for the window sill, already in use by area businesses, will be available in home-oriented prices late in 2000, according to Clearwire Inc. Buffalo is among the company's first markets for fixed wireless service, which offers competition to cable and DSL and could become an important fill-in for areas without other high-speed access. Clearwire uses a cellular-like transmitter station to connect users in a 25-mile radius.
"The more competition there is, the better service is and the better prices are likely to be," said Tom Tarapacki, Buffalo director of telecommunications.
Because of its dense population, the city is a fertile field for DSL service, which works better the closer you are to the phone company's switch. Bell Atlantic has six switching offices in the city.
Meanwhile, Adelphia is upgrading its cable lines in Buffalo to carry two-way data traffic, regional manager Thomas M. Haywood said. He expects to begin offering two-way Internet in the city this month.
Instead of being a souped-up version of a dial-up modem, high-speed connections will transform the Internet into a must-have hookup like power and water, some experts say.
Seeing and hearing a newborn grandchild in a distant state via video conference; checking the home security camera while on vacation -- such new applications will draw new users, Internet vendors say.
"It's amazing what people are willing to spend to see their grandchildren," Prime's Miller said.
Others aren't convinced.
"Back in the '80s there were supposed to be all sorts of things like video-on-demand that never happened," Lutkowitz said. High-speed Internet still needs lower prices and better anti-piracy protections before it can supplant video and record stores, he said.
In addition, the fledgling services haven't achieved the sort of trouble-free reliability that people are used to from the telephone system.
DSL is dicey at distances from the phone company's central office equipment. The technology uses higher frequencies than the normal phone signal, allowing data to travel on the same line as a phone call without interference. But because of power limitations, DSL isn't available on lines farther than 18,000 feet from a switching office. Within that range, the top speed falls as the distance from the switch increases. (A California DSL company offers a lookup service on its Web site, www.2wire.com, that estimates your home's distance from the nearest switch.)
Cable Internet has its own speed bumps. Because users essentially share a network with their neighbors, speeds can vary depending on the activity of others. So while Adelphia posts a blazing top speed of 1 million bits per second "downstream" -- from the Internet to your computer -- actual transmissions are a fraction of that.
Amherst resident Brian Marafino clocked his PowerLink connection at a top speed of 334 kbps, plenty for playing interactive games with buddies from work.
"It's just like hanging out, but we do it in cyberspace instead of the real world," he said.
Once plagued by bugs, the cable Internet service has become much more reliable since Adelphia upgraded to a new transmission standard called DOCIS, Marafino said. As for price, PowerLink adds $40 a month to his cable bill, but it spares him the necessity of a second phone line to accommodate a 24-hour Internet connection. "That's the $40 right there."
Adelphia is far from the point where multiple users begin to cut speeds significantly, officials said. When that happens, the company will break area networks into smaller chunks by adding head-end equipment.
"I would love to be buying $1 million of equipment every year to upgrade this network," said Steven M. Pawlik, regional engineer.
Cable's shared network also opens up potential security problems. DSL connections are somewhat less vulnerable to hackers, but no Internet-connected computer is immune from worry, experts say.
"I shut my computer off every night," Pawlik said. "I see no reason to be leaving that (connection) open."
Lutkowitz predicted that DSL, already popular among business customers, will eventually settle out as the higher-end home technology -- the first choice for users who want to host their own Web site or run a network of multiple home computers and smart appliances.
As the lower-priced alternative, cable will likely be the entry point and mass-market solution for fast Internet, he said. The cable industry, with its ability to bundle services and sell subscribers extras like pay-per-view, has an incentive to keep the installation and access costs low, he said.